For any movement, group or organization, learning to fight well across the privilege gap means everything about its capacity to develop, as one activist put it, “non-oppressive solidarity.” That is, solidarity that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone falling in line with or giving into the white dude, and, here’s the kicker, even when the ideas he presents have substantive merit. Say what? Sometimes it’s less about what a white dude says, and more about where, how, why, when, in what context and to whom he says it. You know, the structural stuff.
To be clear: I write this as a white dude, pulling from my experience as a white dude who interacts frequently with well-educated white dudes. It also includes experiences of friends and others of the non-dude or non-white variety.
When two white dudes fight, it might seem like this to them:
[for the sake of it, let’s give them British accents, top hats and monocles]
“Objectively speaking, your opinion of Truth lacks basis in rational fact.”
“Indubitably, your divergence from scientific inquiry is highly problematic.”
and to others it might look like this:
[two giant monsters yelling and fighting]
“GROGG SMASH STUPID IDEA!”
“MAWG BIG STICK LEGITIMIZE SMALL EGO!”
Discursive power dynamics manifest in subtle ways. They have a way of insidiously infiltrating and co-opting interactions, and often leaving people at the shit-end of the stick wondering why they feel so exhausted, belittled, unheard, illigitimate. The dyanmics can appear so subtle that perpretrators often dismiss them as “semantics” (a defensive focus on content to ignore the structural fact that they are semantically defending their frame of reference over and against yours…their definitions are “true” and “correct,” yours are “semantic quibbling”).
Compare the following phrases:
- “The problem with microsensitivity is nothing ever gets done” vs “I think microsensitivity is a problem”
Notice the difference? Let’s look at another…
- “You’re right” vs “I agree with you”
Not, “I think you’re right.” But simply, “You are right.” Of course, sometimes it means, “I agree.” But sometimes it really means, “I have access to Absolute Truth, and I hereby declare you correct.” A complete act of hubris, yet so deeply entrenched into our psyches that we take it for granted. Some douchebags (and their mimics) try to come across as authority figures (cue the irony violin!) and ‘educate’ everyone else around them. And sometimes it happens without us trying, and has everything to do with who is talking (down?) to whom, rather than what’s being said. When white men behave like white men while they interact with others, it often feels like this:
[normal sized person]
“I think there’s a racial and patriarchal power dynamic in this space”
[large monster with erect penis pointing menacingly at first speaker]
“INDUBITABLY, YOUR DIVERGENCE FROM SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY IS HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC AND LACKS BASIS IN RATIONAL FACT”
Even when they try to act as allies, and focus subtantively on the ideas and not on the power dynamic, their response can feel like this:
“AS AN ALLY WITH NO LESS THAN THREE WEEKS’ EXPERTISE IN ANTI-OPPRESSION WORK, I HEREBY DECLARE YOU CORRECT IN YOUR OBSERVATION OF OPPRESSIVE POWER DYNAMICS.”
Which is enough to send anyone running confusedly for cover with a big, WTF? smeared across their face. Because it’s a mind-twisting experience: a substantive agreement (he thinks I’m correct!) and a shallow display of “agreement” structurally wrapped up inside the white dude declaring himself the humble arbitrator of Truth and Legitimacy, which then leads everyone else to either accept or reject his “gift” of legitimacy. Sometimes white dudes go further and use this power dynamic to frame and co-opt follow-up work:
“HERE IS FURTHER READING FOR YOU TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ON STRUCTURAL POWER DYNAMICS AND PROVE THAT I AM AWESOME AND PERHAPS EVEN PERFECT.”
“I HAVE A FLAWLESS PLAN TO OBLITERATE SEXISM AND RACISM IN THIS SPACE WITH ERUDITE PRECISION AND ACCURACY. NOW, LET’S LAUNCH INTO BRIEFING…” sure thing, Admiral Ackbar.
So, for this reason, people of color and women and queer folk often seek or carve out “women-only” or “queer-only” or “queer womyn of color-only” spaces as a refuge. Not to say that they don’t fight…they still fight. And substantively it can sometimes look a lot like white manfighting:
[two normal-sized people]
“You’re wrong in that, sis!”
“Oh, yeah, prove it!”
But structurally, it’s often not nearly as traumatic or triggering. Micro-aggressions can wear us down, so that when that well-meaning white dude says to us at the end of a shitty day,
[big dude talking to normal-sized person]
“IT’S JUST SMALL STUFF.” (not to me…and there’s a lot of it)
“YOU JUST HAVE TO BE LESS SENSITIVE.” (so my feelings aren’t legitimate?)
“DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU.” (why are you telling me what to do?)
it’s no wonder that people who ordinarily exercise extraordinary grace and patience and resilience finally snap and say stuff like,
“OH SHUT UP YOU PRETENTIOUS NARCISSISTIC DOUCHEBAG!”
Especially if this is the first time in a while they feel safe expressing themselves, or things have just gotten so bad, they’ve stoicly endured so many degrading provocations, that their suppressed need to defend and express themselves finally outweighs their need to survive in a hostile world.
[big man above turns pouty]
“…how am i narcissistic for offering her solutions?”
Because, good sir, you assume your “solutions” are based in a Legitimate Reality that maps directly onto her life experience as helpful and useful, because You Say So. And it often doesn’t map, and they often aren’t helpful. And even when it does map and they are helpful, stop fucking assuming so. Because it means you aren’t shutting up and you aren’t listening, and if you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning and relating. You’re just projecting and imposing shit on others.
Sometimes solidarity looks more like:
“Hey, how was your day?” (genuine curiosity)
“That sucks, what happened?” (genuine empathy with genuine curiosity)
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Ok, well, I’m hear to listen if you want to vent.”
“let me know how I can help. what do you want to do now?” (sometimes, no one knows)
You know, listening and accepting and offering support on *their* terms, not *yours.*
White men and people of privilege generally have extra work to do to put themselves on an equal level with others. We have trust and respect to earn. And that’s the way it should be — because that’s the way it works with everyone else who doesn’t have access to our privilege. And it can take a long time to acheive that trust and respect. Sometimes it never happens. Sorry, dudes — blame the racial patriarchy, not the people struggling through it.
On the flip side of that extra effort, white men are also often not used to being held to account for our microaggressive trespasses. To us, someone holding us to account for something feels like an “attack,” which means we get defensive, we shut down, go on autopilot, puff out our chests, bully our way through the conversation and don’t hear important feedback about the feelings and concerns or constructive suggestions of others:
“i need you to be more collaborative and less condescending if you want to be my ally”
“WHY DO YOU HATE ME?” (translation: “why do i feel so horrible?” Because this stupid patriarchal society coddled and emotionally babied you up to this point, and you’re not used to a real interaction)
or one of my personal favorites:
“i need you to take responsibility for hurting others”
“FINE, I GET IT, IT’S ALL MY FAULT! GEEZ.”
and just like that, it’s all about him. All about how *he* feels hurt as a result of someone expressing how something he did hurt them, a result of asking him to behave differently in the future. All because we’ve been trained and socialized from birth to confuse difficult conversations with personal and even physical attacks. It’s an accountability shield, and when we follow him down that path, it makes his feelings more important to deal with than everyone else’s, which means others have no “legitimate” feelings about their experience with interpersonal power dynamics, let alone the space to air them. Hence the creation of spaces free of white men. We all bring enough internalized crap into the room with us — sometimes it’s just too much to have to deal with the external onslaught at the same time. So it’s nice to have spaces where people don’t have to put up with at least some of that external privileged hostility for some of the time.
[large spectacled white man]
“WHOA, WHY SO ANGRY, M’DEAR? JUST DISCUSS THE IDEAS AND AVOID PERSONAL ATTACKS, PLZ”
[translation: just accept what i have to say, how i say it and never try to hold me accountable when i talk down to you]
“NOW, AS I WAS ‘SPLAINING, YOUR ANALYSIS OF RADICAL QUEER FEMINIST THOUGHT SEEMS TO LACK CONSIDERATION OF THREE CRITICAL COMPONENTS…”
It’s hard to get into this stuff, because it means questioning whether so many of the people we want to consider “allies” really have the capacity to build solidarity. This disruptive behavior does not result from innocent ignorance. When women or people of color offer their precious time and energy and vulnerability to give us an insider perspective into their experience, do we listen, accept, learn, probe, identify, develop, relate, transform? Or do we dispute, dismiss, correct, command, reject, belittle, delegitimize, reframe? Ultimately, it’s not about the the topic or even individual incidents of trespass, but about someone’s ability to demonstrate courageous vulnerability and abandon their implicit allegiance to white male supremacy. Someone’s ability to trust another, especially when it’s uncomfortable to do so and a slap in the face of their fragile ego. And until someone can demonstrate that acceptance, then it’s hard to imagine them doing anything other than undermining a liberation movement from without or within.
“There’s this post-modern obsession with this notion of ‘allies’ — ‘how do i be a good ally?’ The great Ruby Sales says, “We don’t need allies…allies, y’all can check in and out. ‘It’s not my struggle, i need to wait for my leadership…’ We need freedom fighters. The difference between ‘ally’ and ‘freedom fighter’ is you’re willing to put your body on the line. You’ve got blood in the game. Are you willing to put your body on the line, because you understand that you have something spiritually at stake — that your soul is in jeopardy because of racism, that it does something to your humanity, that you are less human…the white folks I trust are the ones I’ve been to jail with…” — Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
When someone who wants to be an “ally” puts their body on the line, then they move past shallow “allyship” into the realm of developing solidarity. When we’re willing to put ourselves on the line, little (but important) constructive critiques of oppressive interactional dynamics don’t alienate or drive us away. Instead, they challenge us, exercise us, build us up, make us stronger in the same way we exercise our bodies to become better, stronger people. Ever been a bit sore after a good workout? No pain, no gain — and after the soreness subsides, you’re stronger, faster. The same workout gets easier.
White men who want “solidarity” without pain and mutual struggle do not want solidarity — they want appeasement. And they’re not only fragile, they’re lazy. Let’s face it: Closeted white male supremacy hasn’t infiltrated liberalism and progressivism. It IS liberalism and progressivism. A left-leaning articulate, well-educated white male can rationalize his way into a paper sack and call it Kingdom Come, with almost limitless capacity for self-delusion. Perhaps this explains why I most often see microaggressions coming from the well-to-do…
the folks that can actually speak to the white working class (namely radical white working class people) are few and far between, and that many are actively silenced and ridiculed for their backgrounds by affluent white organizers. While much has been done to point out the inherently racist issues that plague many progressive and radical organizations, almost nothing has been done to point out the inherent classism that runs rampant on the left. — Dave Strano, http://libcom.org/library/rednecks-guns-other-anti-racist-stories-strategies
I did not write this post to tiptoe around while looking for “potential allies.” I did not write this post to appease fragile, well-educated white male egoes. I realize it will offend some — perhaps many — white people (men, especially). I look for people who can read my use of “douchebag” as both self-critical and light-hearted. I look for people who can do more than agree with me — people who can also see how this essay might apply to them. I have yet to see any amount of education instill this ethic in someone. I’ve only seen the opposite: in the absence of this ethic, “education” only serves to further undermine our capacity to connect and build solidarity while enhancing our capacity for socially (self)destructive behavior. On the other hand, I have also seen education amplify and empower the ethic in many people who take it with them into the education process.
This essay serves for me as a reminder of the need to set firm boundaries wherever possible and shit-can (compost) people from my life who continuously manifest and do the work of the very systems and institutions I seek to destroy. It’s not anyone’s responsibility to educate anyone on this stuff, either. Even when it’s one white dude talking (down?) to another white dude…sometimes the dude-in-question just doesn’t want to listen, no matter how knowledgable, experienced and articulate and sensitive and careful the other person might be. No matter the presence of penis and absence of melanin. And if someone doesn’t want to listen and learn, then they need to go away and do some more fundamental work. We can (and probably should) tell him that, and he (probably) won’t listen. We can, however, set the boundary, and expect him to call us all sorts of “feminazi reverse-racist discriminator killjoys” for not allowing his subtle (sometimes whiny) rampage to go unchecked. Often times, a white dude would rather be a white dude than a traitor to his white male supremacist identities. In such cases, the boundary we set, as our last desperate act of tough love, is the only thing that will get them to seriously consider the previous feedback we’ve given them. And if not…then it’s even more evidence in support of setting the boundary in the first place.
Setting such boundaries has offensive as well as defensive potential:
“The task is not to win over more whites to oppose ‘racism;’ there are ‘anti-racists’ enough already to do the job. The task is to gather together a minority determined to make it impossible for anyone to be white. It is a strategy of creative provocation” (Noel Ignatiev, http://racetraitor.org/abolishthepoint.html)
White men who openly refuse to identify with and support whiteness and masculinity as others publicly manifest it start to chip away at the social constructs of white male supremacies. It confuses and complicates the process of social control, makes collusion with oppression more difficult, because members of the establishment can no longer assume “ally” or “enemy” of us based on physical appearance. This does not, however, mean adopting a form of neo-blackface privileged mockery of black identity. When we abandon white masculinity, the allegiances and identities we embrace will constitute and carve out new, alien spaces replacing traditional and false “male v female” and “black v white” dichotomies. And the establishment will do everything it can to suck us back into those dichotomies.
How do we tell people who have capacity to build solidarity apart from the others? Growth is often tedious and painful for everyone involved, but we should see initiative, sensitivity, and clear progress over time in developing solidarity. So when we point out that someone is talking an awful lot, interrupting or talking over or down to others, do we see them becoming increasingly sensitive to this, and do we see behavioral change over time? Or does the person deny, justify and argue, ad nauseum, over and over again, treating each moment in the pattern of abuse like an isolated incident? Do we feel increasingly energized and hopeful around him, or do we feel (more, or less) drained, exhausted, depressed, fearful, fight-or-flighty?
A collaborative behavioral framework has begun to emerge from my positive and negative experiences — a list of interlocking behaviors that I think help make solidarity easier (though not necessarily easy) for everyone:
- Check your assumptions before acting on them
- Listen actively and seek to understand
- WAIT: Why Am I Talking? (how frequently/much do you talk? this is a big one for me, in case you couldn’t tell…i’m a talker!) Better yet, leave empty space for others to walk into and fill. And if someone doesn’t every time, that’s OK. Just keep leaving it empty.
- HAIT: How Am I Talking? Do i frame my opinions and perspectives and experiences as Truth and Reality? Or do I take a humble stance and admit these are my experiences, observations, agreements/disagreements, etc?
- Ask how others feel about something, and give ample space to see where they stand. In other words, ask with genuine curiosity, not intent to dispute or argue. And just let it sit.
- It’s not all about you: when someone says something you don’t want to hear, swallow your pride and question your feelings of defensiveness first, THEN seek clarity, THEN give yourself time to mull it over, THEN re-engage as necessary.
- Take initiative to educate yourself on the things that others find important. Don’t make them do your research for you, don’t make them recite articles to you or “prove” anything to you. That’s exhausting and fucked up. And if they do such a thing, acknowledge it and express genuine appreciation.
- Get right with yourself, so you don’t use activist spaces as stages to prove how cool and together and badass you are and how much you know and how “good an ally” you are. Otherwise you are co-opting space for something that’s bigger than you simply to massage your fragile ego. Learn to love yourself and interact with the world from the basis of that love. People who genuinely love themselves can hear difficult feedback and consider it and integrate it without arguing. They can learn and grow. They can tell the difference between uncomfortable accountability and assault. And I’m tired of explaining the difference to douchebags who conflate the two (which, apart from being an accountability shield, also belittles the actual, much more egregious assaults that women and people of color and others face on a daily basis…do you really want to equate your feeling hurt with the rape and murder of others?):
“Someone assaulted me today…I feel unclean…”
“YEAH, I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL. SOMEOME TRIED TO TELL ME I WAS INTERRUPTING AND TALKING OVER THEM AND ACTING DEFENSIVE AND GETTING AGGRESSIVE, BUT I CONVINCED THEM THEY WERE WRONG. IT REALLY HURT, THOUGH.”
These collaborative behaviors do not represent a solution to the question of solidarity amidst microaggression. “Haters gonna hate.” But they do help us identify behavioral patterns conducive to solidarity as well as more problematic behaviors. So where do I draw the line? This part seems the trickiest for me. I don’t know. My default behavior tends toward assuming good intentions and then holding on through discussion as long as possible until I feel completely worn and beaten down, or that continued interaction with someone seems both harmful and a waste of my energy. Sometimes I see results. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I stay patient. Sometimes I “other” the dude, even as I recognize behaviors that remind me of ways I used to behave (and sometimes still do). Often times I feel my assumption of good intentions as a form of vulnerability that leads toward disappointment and pain. And sometimes it leads to uplifting experiences and new relationships.
Some people tell me not to draw a line. They say, “always practice compassion and patience and love toward everyone.” Strong people do not need lines, they tell me. But I think boundaries serve as an example of “tough love,” a reminder to me that love comes in many forms, and whether or not a behavior actually represents “love” depends entirely on context. For example, does a tender hug demonstrate love? What if I tenderly hug someone who wants space from me? Is criticism love? What if all I ever do is support that person, and the one time I finally speak out critically it’s from a place of genuine concern because I see them acting in ways that threaten themselves and sabotage their relationships? Where, when and how do you draw the line?
A patriarchal society often considers a lot of collaborative attitudes and behaviors as “feminine,” and for a lot of men, the road to anti-oppressive solidarity lies in personal work to stop performing an internalized patriarchal masculinity identity that prevents us from behaving in courageously vulnerable and collaborative ways. We gain access to more when we publicly and privately abandon and oppose whiteness. But the hard work opens up infinite possibilities for relationships and learning and life experiences. In other words, there’s a huge personal (let alone social) payoff for the white men who want to do it. And for the rest…meh, maybe movements are better off without them until they decide to change their tune?
Why the Salem Food Co-op failedFebruary 24, 2017
Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)
This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.
10 RED FLAGS
1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).
Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”
See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.
2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.
In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!
3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).
Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.
4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.
5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?
6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family. Cue the burnout!
7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”
8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.
9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve. I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.
10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”
This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.
I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.
Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.
Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:
If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.
I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives. Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:
Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools. Like any tool they can be used to exploit others. Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.
I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.
Leave a Comment » | Defection, Random thoughts, Tools, Unsolicited commentary | Tagged: Food Cooperative Development Initiative, Julie Guthman, Northwest Cooperative Development Center, Resilience Action Network, Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, sunk cost fallacy, Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement | Permalink
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